MON AM News: DWD officials working to modernize systems following latest LAB report; AARP warning of low vaccination rates among long-term care staff

— Officials with the Department of Workforce Development say they’re working to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system, following a report from the Legislative Audit Bureau showing the agency failed to comply with certain federal regulations. 

The semi-annual LAB report documented delays in benefit payments and appeals reported through the bureau’s fraud hotline. 

LAB notes that states must resolve 80 percent of appeals within 45 days, but the report shows DWD “did not resolve appeal decisions in a timely manner” between June 2020 and May of this year. For May 2021, the agency reported  resolution of just 17.5 percent of appeals within 45 days. And about 14,500 appeals were awaiting a decision by DWD in May. 

The Republican co-chairs of LAB criticized DWD’s performance in a release. And the bureau is asking the agency to report to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in mid-September to deliver a compliance plan. 

“I’m not surprised by this finding,” said Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem Lakes. “It confirms what my colleagues and I have been hearing all along from our constituents, and I am disappointed all over again by DWD’s failure to anticipate critical needs.” 

Jennifer Sereno, communications director for DWD, attributes the delays to the “unprecedented surge of claims combined with legacy underinvestment in IT infrastructure.” In an email, she said the agency paid out $6.6 billion in UI benefits between January 2020 and June 2021. 

She noted that DWD added or reassigned around 1,900 workers during the peak pandemic period to expand call centers and handle more UI claims. The agency was able to increase its capacity to around 7 million calls per month. 

But U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from the Green Bay area, says the LAB report “doesn’t inspire any confidence in their ability to responsibly manage” federal unemployment dollars. 

Sereno said the agency is planning the first phase of a system overhaul, including an “omnichannel customer contact management system that efficiently tracks and manages all customer contacts.” The system would compile data from phone calls, online chats, text messaging and social media. 

She said this system would help the agency respond to inquiries in a more timely manner. 

“This comprehensive effort to modernize the antiquated, 1970’s UI system focuses on the challenges experienced by claimants and businesses during the unprecedented claims load,” Sereno said. “DWD appreciates LAB’s guidance as the UI system moves forward with long overdue upgrades.” 

See the LAB report here: 

See the release from the LAB co-chairs: 

— AARP Wisconsin is warning that just 14.7 percent of the state’s nursing homes meet the threshold of having 75 percent of their staff fully vaccinated — below the national average of around 20 percent. 

At the same time, the state’s overall vaccination rate for these workers is slightly higher than the national average, at 57.5 percent. That’s compared to 56 percent for the national average, according to the AARP’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard. 

AARP Wisconsin State Director Sam Wilson notes that more than 184,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19. He added that 43 percent of Wisconsin’s 7,500 deaths from the virus have been in long-term care facilities. 

“We quite simply have to remain vigilant and focused on protecting our most vulnerable and ensure our frontline health care providers have the support and supplies they need to stay safe,” Wilson said in a release. 

See the release: 

See the AARP dashboard here: 

— The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin continues to climb, reaching 638 cases per day on Friday. 

That’s the highest the seven-day average has been since late April. The steep increase comes as state health officials have been urging state residents to get vaccinated, with less than half of the state’s total population fully vaccinated against the virus at 49.3 percent. And 51.9 percent of the state’s population have received at least one dose. 

By comparison, 49.5 percent of the entire U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 57.5 percent have gotten at least one dose. 

Meanwhile, officials have also been tracking an increasing number of delta variant cases and have identified 374 cases of this more infectious variant. The Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene dashboard shows the vast majority of new cases sequenced in the past four weeks have been caused by the delta variant. 

See the latest delta variant findings here: 

See the latest state vaccine data: 

— The venture capital arm of CUNA Mutual Group is putting $15 million into the newly launched CMFG Ventures Discovery Fund, which will invest in early-stage businesses with diverse founders. 

CMFG Ventures has invested more than $200 million into 28 companies, according to a release. It was created about five years ago by the Madison-based financial services company, and typically commits between $1 million and $5 million for initial investments. 

“At CMFG Ventures, we’re well aware of the barriers to entry that exist for people of color and women entrepreneurs in gaining access to venture capital,” said Brian Kaas, president and managing director of CMFG Ventures. “Through the launch of our Discovery Fund, we believe we can build a more diverse portfolio of companies to support now and invest in further as they grow.” 

In a statement, Kaas said the fund aims to help these companies grow by connecting them to credit unions and their customers, which he says are “too often overlooked by other financial services providers.” 

The fund will be managed by Elizabeth McCluskey, who previously worked for a Chicago-based private equity firm owned and led by women called Impact Engine. The fund has already closed three investments in startups providing financial services.

These include: Home Lending Pal, which provides mortgage advising supported by artificial intelligence; a platform called Line that provides up to $1,000 loans to customers with no interest; and Pulsate, a communications service for financial institutions. 

See more in a release:

— The state Public Service Commission has received 240 applications requesting more than $420 million in broadband grants. 

PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq says demand for broadband funding “has never been higher.” Applicants included internet service providers, local governments, cooperatives, as well as nonprofit and for-profit groups. 

“Exacerbated by the pandemic, the lack of broadband in many areas is leaving people out of our modern society,” Valcq said in a statement. 

In May, Gov. Tony Evers authorized the funding for the grants, which comes from the American Rescue Plan Act. A release shows the PSC is expected to award $100 million in the early fall of this year for broadband projects in “unserved and underserved locations” in Wisconsin. 

See the release: 

— The City of Madison is expected to boost its renewable energy use by 20 percent once the planned Hermsdorf Solar Fields project is up and running. 

City officials and representatives of the Madison Metropolitan School District recently attended a groundbreaking ceremony held by Madison Gas and Electric. The solar array will have around 28,000 solar panels on 53 acres of land, located north of the Dane County landfill. 

Construction is planned to start this summer and the array is expected to start generating electricity by the end of 2021. 

A release shows the school district is expected to increase its renewable energy use by 16 percent as well. 

See the release: 

— The C.A. Lawton Co. has become the first member of the DNR’s Green Tier environmental program to receive a Tier 2 permit.

This allows the company to negotiate its environmental performance commitments with the agency. 

Under the Tier 2 contract, the company gets increased “operational flexibility” and is required to maintain air emission levels below 80 percent of the major source thresholds. Its De Pere facility manufactures iron casings and other components for various industries including mining and paper production. 

To obtain this permit, businesses in the program have to demonstrate that they are “committed to going beyond compliance to achieve superior environmental performance,” according to a release. The C.A. Lawton Co. joined the Green Tier program in 2013. 

“Lawton has a proven record of environmental excellence, and their transition into a Tier 2 contract will provide a structure for continual improvement and will help streamline their air permitting needs,” said Greg Pils, environmental analysis and sustainability director for the DNR.

See more on the program: 

— The latest crop progress report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service shows declining crop moisture levels as dry conditions persist in much of the state. 

The report, covering the week ending July 26, comes after several weeks of slight improvement in moisture levels in both topsoil and subsoil. The northern half of the state saw “some timely rain events,” the report shows. But other parts of the state saw little precipitation. 

Harvesting of winter wheat and processing vegetables continues ahead of the five-year average, the report shows. 

See the full report here: 

— Organizers for Madison’s 12th annual Forward Festival say this year’s gathering will feature an all-time high of more than 60 tech events. 

Including both virtual and in-person events, Forward Festival will take place Aug. 12-19. 

“Both options provide an experience that’s just as robust in terms of learning, professional growth and networking,” said Hilary Stohs-Krause, festival board member and co-owner of Madison-based Ten Forward Consulting. 

Many of the state’s startup companies will be highlighted at the Badger Startup Summit on Aug. 12, while the Forward Tech Conference will cap off the week-long festival on Aug. 17-19. 

See more event details: 


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– UWM receives $1 million gift from architecture grad who now works in Boston

– After MPS lease falls through, Milwaukee Excellence Charter School risks starting another school year virtually


– Smoked out: As wildfires ravage Canada and Western US, Wisconsin’s air quality is challenged


– Wisconsin’s new virus cases top 1,000 for 1st time in months


– New homes help drive record A.O. Smith water heater sales, even with 40% price hikes


– Explainer: What’s going on with the Judge Doyle Square hotel?


– First Deer District Night Market draws businesses, crowds downtown


<i>See these and other press releases: </i>

Dept. of Justice: AG Kaul joins coalition urging congress to permanently extend expanded child tax

AARP Wisconsin: Sounds alarm on vaccination rates for Wisconsin nursing homes staff

WSCGA: To host Summer Field Day at Whittlesey Cranberry Company